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Supreme Court votes not to suspend Putnam family judge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Supreme Court voted earlier this week not to suspend a Putnam County family court judge who faces several charges from the state Judicial Investigation Commission regarding his conduct on the bench.

Justices voted 3-2 not to suspend Family Court Judge William Watkins without pay until the charges against him are settled. The vote was taken Wednesday, but the order was not released until Friday morning.

Justices Brent Benjamin, Menis Ketchum and Thomas McHugh voted not to suspend Watkins. Justices Robin Davis and Margaret Workman voted to suspend him.

Watkins was charged by the Judicial Investigation Commission last month with failing to rule on motions, even after circuit judges told him to, and failing to enter domestic-violence orders into the state's tracking system.

Earlier this week, the commission filed five additional charges against Watkins. Those are based on the its investigation of complaints from people who appeared in front of Watkins, and primarily involve the judge's behavior in hearings, including allegations of shouting and profanity.

The Supreme Court's vote came one day after Watkins was served with the latest charges.

Also Friday, Watkins filed his official response in the Supreme Court to the first set of charges.

According to the first charges, Watkins did not rule for about two years on a motion to split up property in a divorce case, even after being directed to make a ruling -- once by then-Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding and twice by Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers.

Watkins finally ruled in the case last month, after the Supreme Court threatened contempt proceedings against him.

According to the first charges, Watkins told an investigator that circuit judges "had no authority over the family court" and they did not have the authority to "compel me to do anything."

However, a Supreme Court decision from 2003 found that circuit court judges do have authority over family court judges in West Virginia. In that case, the Supreme Court overturned a decision in Berkeley County in which a judge had ruled that circuit judges could not give orders to family court judges.

In his response, Watkins "admits the essence" of his statement about family courts and circuit courts, but said "such a statement was not intended to be defiant but rather a reference to [his] understanding of the law."

During the investigation into Watkins' delayed rulings, new allegations surfaced. The charges allege several instances where Watkins repeatedly had to be asked to enter orders into the state domestic-violence database. Watkins denies those allegations, and requests the investigation commission provide more proof, according to his response.

In March 2009, when family courts were in the process of taking over the domestic-violence database from the West Virginia State Police, Watkins sent a letter to the Supreme Court administrator and the director of family courts, saying "his office did not have time" to comply with the new program, the charges state.

In his response, Watkins included a copy of the letter.

"Wonderful Idea! When do we hire the extra clerical people? We can't even answer the damn phone half the time, so I was curious where all this extra time to scan, etc. Is going to come from. Is this one of those parallel universe things?" Watkins wrote, in the 2009 letter to court officials.

As part of the response, Watkins said he would "make every effort" to review all orders in a timely manner, make sure domestic-violence orders are entered into the state's tracking system the same day, attend education and training programs and make sure all phone calls are answered or dealt with within 24 hours.

Last month, Watkins blamed an overwhelming caseload for the problems outlined in the first set of charges. He did not return a call for comment this week about the second set of charges.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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